We’ve all heard by now that millennials are famous for desiring mobility. And that, because they don’t want to be tied down in one place for too long, they prefer urban apartment living.
In fact, some millennials don’t want to live downtown: Some are young professionals who want more space for the dog, or even their kids, but still don’t want to be stuck to a mortgage.
The idea of single-family for rent works for this demographic because they can afford it. But for developers, providing detached housing for renters has historically been difficult because of the disconnect between the cost to construct and the value the owner can get out of the rent that can be reasonably charged.
JHP Architecture/Urban Design, in collaboration with Larry W. Garnett Design & Planning, recently came up with a way to satisfy both parties, multifamily developers and renters who prefer detached housing or townhomes, with a mixed development in a northern suburb of Austin, Texas.
The project, The Village at Wuthrich Hill in Pflugerville, Texas, features more than 70 detached homes for rent, 40-plus townhomes, and 140 apartments. The rent per square foot on the apartments is significantly higher than that on the detached homes, so the apartments support the detached homes, which makes the pro forma viable. Culturally, the suburban enclave also appeals to people who want flexible living outside the locations typically pushed on millennials—downtown, around retail and transit.
Combining these three building types creates a neighborhood feel at The Village, which shows that there truly are housing opportunities for everyone—including a millennial right out of school who could conceivably rent a small apartment to start and stay in the neighborhood as his or her needs change and later move up to a house with a yard. Thus, at combination properties like The Village, the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its individual housing types, from both a quality-of-life and a financial standpoint.
Planning and Spatial Challenges
On the planning side, the challenge behind a mixed-product project is making a 40-acre development feel like a community and making it people-centric rather than car-centric. Municipal rules, however, demand adequate fire-truck access to single-family homes, so while the project team wanted The Village to be walkable, it also had to make sure the design complied with these safety requirements.
The team integrated The Village's three housing types by combining the single-family homes (called cottages), townhomes, and flats in groupings that permitted each type to have its own spaces while being intermingled into the larger community. All the dwellings share a community center, helping to dissuade the idea that the single-family part represents a “step up” and the multifamily a “step down.”
The team located the community center on a short boulevard at the project entrance, strategically placing it at the point where all the different housing types “run into” one another. The building is also a gathering place, with a coffee shop/café with outdoor seating, a clubroom with an industrial kitchen and large television, and a pool and fitness facility. From that starting point, in a horizontal sense, the team created a series of walking paths, pocket parks, and other elements in the landscape that make connections throughout the site.
The vertical design, on the other hand, presented another challenge: The three housing types would be built simultaneously, but the team didn’t want them all looking the same. As a result, the cottages have more of a traditional design, with traditional detailing. The townhomes, meanwhile, present an “updated traditional” style—a bit more contemporary. The multifamily flats, in turn, are even more contemporary than the townhomes.
The flats comprise one-, two-, and three-story structures. This overall progression from small to large represents a conscious effort to transition from a traditional look to a more commercial one. The leasing office for the entire development resides in one of the multifamily parts and is the most modern and commercial-like building on the campus.
Navigating City Rules
The city of Pflugerville had standards for how much brick had to appear on the front of each house in the project. The team presented the city with a plan showing the whole block, rather than individual units, arguing that, over the whole block, the team met the masonry minimum requirement in aggregate, even though one house might be 90% masonry and another only 10%. The idea was to avoid the "subdivision look" in which every house appears the same, with brick on the front and vinyl siding on the back and sides.
The argument was successful, and the city looked at the project as a special case requiring a one-off architectural waiver exempting The Village from the main zoning code. The key to the team's success in presenting its plans to city officials was to show renderings of all the block spaces and how they would work. An accurate picture of the whole block was the clincher. In order for JHP to be able to provide the renderings, the city had to commit to the design very early on so that it would have an accurate example of what the final product would look like.
Shared Areas as Connection Points
The Village’s shared amenity center complements all three housing types at the property. The glass-and-wood, “soft modern” building displays a totally different design from the rest of the project but uses the same materials throughout, tying them together with different colors to achieve a good transition.
The amenity center’s “jewel-box” design marks it as the development’s most contemporary piece, providing a very modern interpretation of Hill Country design that is obviously new and different, with a high design quotient. The unique, single-story building is meant to be an exclamation point among all the other buildings in the development.
Scale and the Resident Experience
To capture what the resident experience at The Village would be like, the team had to ask itself, how is it going to feel to walk from point A to point B? As alluded to above, a walkable layout and connections were ultimately achieved through a series of smaller neighborhoods, outdoor parks, and progression of spaces indoors and out. The location and scale of the buildings make the environment pleasant, while the pocket parks and open space create relief points.
Façade work by the block gives a visual richness to passersby. In a lot of new single-family communities, you feel like you’re passing the same house over and over as you walk down the street. The variety of styles and materials used at The Village, in contrast, creates a rich visual experience but not a confused cacophony of mismatched designs. There’s balance, not tension.
The end result, with a spread of living units from very traditional to very modern (cottages to amenity room), is a cohesive whole whose individual components stand out without overshadowing one another, in large part because of the team’s attention to detail throughout. The decision to maintain a consistent thread via the materials was key.
Though the styles vary, their colors and materials tie them together in an unexpected, but visually appealing, way.